CAT 2014 – My Take

Here’s my take on the CAT as I perceived it (16th morning slot). Note that the opinions expressed are entirely my own 🙂 Also it is slightly long…not that that will surprise anybody!

Overall Structure: There were 4 sets of 4 questions each of DI, LR and RC. 34 singleton questions in QA and 18 in VA rounded things off.

QA: As many people have noted already, the QA was pretty easy. However, it was not the cakewalk some have made it out to be; there was the typical emphasis on testing the basics with deceptively simple but very precisely worded questions (and as always there were a few elegant traps in the finest tradition of CAT). The topics covered all the usual suspects (Geometry, Algebra, Arithmetic, Numbers, Modern maths all had significant representation) and no really unusual ones (no, after 40 years CAT has still not seen fit to ask a questions requiring Pick’s theorem or Fermat’s Little Theorem. Much to the sorrow of those who have been studying such stuff faithfully). It would seem CAT still rewards those who stick to the basics, but do those really thoroughly.

DI: While not exactly difficult, most of the sets would have troubled those who had only learned to handle standard data presentation forms; they required quick analysis and structuring of significantly non-standard data formats. Time-consuming, for sure, but a pleasure to attempt if you like that sort of thing.

VA: Much to my chagrin, direct Vocab-based questions remained elusive for the second year in a row. Instead, Grammar, Parajumbles, Critical Reasoning (Inferential), Incorrect Sentence in the Para, and Summary questions made up the numbers. I felt that a little over a third of them were pretty straightforward (a pleasant surprise after last year’s VA where nearly every question gave me a headache).

RC: The RC section was surprisingly pleasant, passages of a very reasonable length and on topics which did not put on to sleep (philosophy, I’m looking at you here!). The questions, too, were not as ambiguous as they have typically been in recent years – in many cases I could arrive at an answer without doubt or hesitation, which is unusual, at least for me! Those people who neglected the RC section in this one out of habit are probably going to live to regret it – this could have been a good scoring area even for someone who is not an English maven. Given the level of LR, the CAT RCs were catharsis, you might say.

LR: Even more so than in DI, the LR sets were non-standard. Only one of the 4 sets could be described as straightforward – unfortunately that was also the longest and had the most conditionalities and hence a good number of people ignored it totally. Two of the sets were quite impressively tricky to grasp. I found them refreshing and challenging, and unusually, even after solving them I was not confident of my answers (which rarely happens to me in LR). Certainly the most daunting area in this slot.

Overall, the DI and LR together called to mind the heyday of CAT’s DI and LR (during 2002-2008) in terms of the precision of wording, the skill-sets and the quick thinking required, while at the same time being entirely new in the specifics (which obviously I cannot talk about here!). The closest comparison I can draw is CAT 2006, where the Pathways set and the Erdos number set, while relatively quite easy, confounded most test-takers by being totally unlike anything they’d seen before.

In the QA and DI section, my personal take is that a score of between 65 to 75 would probably be an acceptable performance. (This would probably require 30+ attempts with a pretty decent accuracy, quite achievable under the circumstances). In the VA section, a score of 60-65 should prove sufficient; possibly as low as 50, since a lot of people who were relying on LR underperformed horrendously.

Now to address some of the interesting statements I’ve been encountering, the FAQs you could say:

FAQ 1: The paper was so easy, 98%ile cutoffs will go to 200, I have heard

No. Really, people, no. Easy or not, 150 would be a fair score and 175 an awesome one in any paper. 98%ile means close to 4000 people; even in the easiest of the Sims after all, you rarely saw a 200 – the idea that 4000, or even 400 people would be able to hit that level seems very improbable, to be frank.

FAQ 2: But so many people are posting scores like “84 attempts with 90% accuracy”…

Yes, they are. So are they more foolish for posting those, or are you more foolish for being gullible enough to swallow those estimates? People are notoriously bad at estimating how well they have done – and over three-fourths of people tend to overestimate (in public, at least). Ask yourself these questions:

  • Whenever you have written SimCATs in the past, after you submitted, but before the score appeared, you must have made some kind of estimate of what you expected. How often was this accurate (or even in the same ball-park, really?)
  • How many people do you know who can actually manage a 90% accuracy reliably? (I can’t. And I have been doing this stuff for over a decade and a half). In QA, perhaps. But given the subjective nature of VA, even 80% there requires some luck.
  • Assuming that your friend is speaking the truth and actually is sure that his 84 attempts have 90% accuracy. He must therefore have known that 8 questions were wrong. Why did he mark them then, I wonder?

If you are still not convinced, try a little experiment. Chances are that some of you who are taking the test on Saturday will be taking a last practice test today or tomorrow. If so, do me a favour – after the time is up but before you submit, write down on a piece of paper your attempts and your estimate of how many you got correct and wrong in each section and overall. Then submit and see how accurate you were.

FAQ 3: So then what about those people who are getting 99.99 in percentile predictors?

Percentile predictors, even if accurate, (and that’s another kettle of fish) depend on the accuracy of the input you give them. Garbage in, garbage out. And as pointed out above, most people’s estimates of their accuracy are greatly exaggerated.

And while some percentile predictors at least try to give an honest opinion, most are like fortune-tellers; they tell you what you want to hear. They rely on the human tendency to be flattered; if one tells you that you are going to get 88 and the other says 97, and you actually get an 89, you will still remember the latter one more fondly despite it being wildly inaccurate. As a result, you have loads of people who are joyfully shouting from the rooftops that it has been predicted that they will get a 99.99 or similar (never mind that they haven’t actually crossed 90 in a single practice test so far).

However, stop a moment and think – if 2 lakh people take the exam, only 30 people or less will actually achieve a 99.99 or more.

FAQ 4: But isn’t 150 too low? QA cutoffs will go to a 100, surely?

You would think so, but it probably won’t even come close. What most of us seem to forget is that the majority of people are scared of maths. Even easy maths. They come in with an aim of “20 good attempts” and even faced with an easy paper, they rarely go beyond 30, if that. The textbook example which is the closest comparison would be of CAT 2006, which had a tricky DI/LR section, but featured a QA section which was at least as straightforward as Sunday’s (and what’s more, 2 minutes per question, on a paper-based test; more than what we have here). Yet the QA cut-off for a 95%ile score was under 40 out of 100. Assuming that people haven’t miraculously gotten smarter in the decade since (a safe assumption) I don’t see a comparable cut-off crossing 70 this time.

FAQ 5: I’m writing the paper on 22nd? Will the level and breakup of questions be the same?

Short answer: we don’t know J

To the best of our knowledge, the level and breakup varied slightly between the two slots on Sunday – the LR was noticeably easier and the QA was almost certainly a bit tougher, for example. And a sub-area which featured 3 questions in the morning had none in the afternoon. So for all we know, the papers on 22nd might feature vocab or DS (or maybe even Pick’s theorem, though I’m betting against that). You try to predict the CAT at your peril!

My gut feeling is that the overall level of the paper will not change too much. However, the “difficulty distribution” might well undergo a drastic revision – for all you know the LR might be easy-peasy arrangements while the RCs might feature Spinoza, Kant and Freud. Or even good old Derrida. My only advice on this (and that hasn’t changed in its broad essence over the past ten years) is “don’t carry any pre-conceived notions with you”. As C. P. Cavafy says in his lovely poem “Ithaka”
      Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

      wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

      unless you bring them along inside your soul,

      unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”

If you go there expecting easy QA, and it turns out tough, then you might panic and end up missing the easy LRs that accompany it. Or the easy RCs. As happened on 16th, with those poor souls who had pre-decided “I will do all the LRs and not look at the RC” and who, even now, are probably regretting their rigidity. Have a plan by all means, but be prepared to change it at a moment’s notice if necessary. Flexibility might be crucial to survival. As I am fond of quoting “no battle plan survives the moment of first contact with the enemy”

And of course, don’t forget that most invaluable piece of advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:




CAT 2014 Experience

I wasn’t actually planning to put a “CAT Experience” post, but since many people have requested one, here goes. As many people have said, the CAT was not that tough this year, a sight for sore eyes…

Soft kitty

I’ll divide this into two posts, this one detailing the overall test-taking experience and another one with my take on the test level and what it might entail for future slots. This will also give me an opportunity to address many rumours and fears which seem to be proliferating in the aftermath of Sunday’s slots.

Some of you might directly wish to jump to the other one 🙂

Pre-test procedure:

I wrote CAT ’14 in the morning slot on Sunday. My friend and I arrived at 7:15. We were let in at around 7:45 or a little after, with a first round of basic checks i.e. admit card + id proof. (I believe people were allowed in till a little past 8:15 at my centre. However, don’t take risks on this – there were reports from some centres of latecomers being summarily ousted. That extra twenty minutes of sleep could cost you a year. Unlike in previous years, there was a board outside with a list of names and the allotted labs/computers. There were two labs at my centre, with nearly a hundred students.

Things were pretty well organised at the centre (Aruna Manharlal Shah institute, Ghatkopar, in case you’re wondering) – they had even opened the cafeteria so that once we got in, we could refresh ourselves with some basic breakfast (dosa and chai, in my case). After a jolly half an hour there laughing at the people doing frantic last-minute mugging, we went up to the second floor where the labs were. There was a registration room for the final formalities, and waiting rooms to await our turn (these rooms were where we were required to deposit our worldly goods, such as they were; no tokens were provided but as far as I know everyone got their stuff back without incident)

When leaving the waiting room, you were allowed to carry only the admit card (on the topic of admit cards, please make sure the print is decent; black and white is fine, but the photo should resemble you and the signature should be reasonably clear, and you need to stick one recent colour photo on the card) and an ID proof. A quick webcam mugshot and Left Thumb Impression later, we were directed to our hot seats.

The system provided was unexceptionable with a large and clear screen and a responsive mouse. The space between rows was cramped, though, and the icing on that cake was that the on/off switches for the computer were located on the floor directly beneath the monitor. Right where I would normally put my feet. Which means I spent the entire test with my legs carefully cramped as far back as they would go. Non-ergonomic, to say the least!

Having got in, another short wait ensued – during which we were handed a single sheet of A4 paper (don’t worry, you can ask for more if you like, they keep count and you have to submit them all at the end) and a single ballpen. We were asked to enter our passwords and then wait till the server reckoned it was 9:30 and told us to start. (The keyboard, although present, is not meant to be touched – one enters one’s password via the mouse using an onscreen keyboard. We were assured that touching the keyboard would stop your test and put your session in jeopardy; not surprisingly, none of us tried the experiment)

During the Test:

The interface was smooth, no significant glitches. A few points worth noting:

  1. Scoring: the test clearly and unambiguously stated: +3 for a correct, -1 for a wrong and no penalty for unattempted questions.
  2. When a question was answered and marked for review, it was not listed in the “answered” count obtained by hovering over the section name. However, we are assured that those questions (indicated on the right by a violet dot with green tick) will also be evaluated.
  3. Highlighting feature was absent in the RCs (I don’t use it myself, but those who rely overmuch on it should probably beware)
  4. In some RCs, a curious thing happened – three questions were asked, then an LR set came up, and then the same RC popped up again with a 4th We don’t know yet whether this was intentional or fortuitous, whether it was a feature or a bug.
  5. There were colourful graphs in the DI section. I don’t know about other folks, but I was quite cheered by them!
  6. There were frequent interruptions – a couple of attendance sheets were passed around, the invigilators came to collect the admit cards mid-test (you have to sign in their presence and hand over the card), and a few times the invigilators’ phones made weird noises. So be prepared to keep a firm grasp on your concentration.
  7. When the 170 minutes were up, the test automatically stopped (making the submit button possibly the most redundant piece of coding I have seen in years) and the screen showed a summary of attempts in each section and overall. Then we all trooped down to hand in our rough paper and pens, and walked free into the wide open spaces. (Note: please don’t forget to take along your id proof while leaving – as you would probably have pushed it into some corner of the desk, out of your way, it is surprisingly easy to forget




10 Things You Need To Do On CAT-Day


Now that you are done with doing everything you can prepping for the CAT what matters most is how and what you execute in the 170 minutes on D-Day.

What are the things you should do?

What are the pitfalls both strategic and psychological that you must avoid?

Here is a list of the 10 Things You Should Do On CAT-Day.

1. Beat The Waiting-Time Blues
The first thing you need to tackle on test-day is the long wait before you get to start the test, at least a good 45 minutes will be spent twiddling your thumbs. There is a very strong chance that your brain will go off into sleep mode during this period. So you need to ensure that the system stays sharp during this period.

One way to do this is to keep yourself mentally occupied with the any of the following things — mentally go through the solutions of good problems you have encountered in your prep (old CAT problems, alternate solutions to problems etc) , go through the tables or values of fractions and decimals or remind yourself of the other 9 things mentioned in this list :-).

Do this at a slow and relaxed pace. Imagine sportsmen practicing their warm ups – cricketers facing tennis-ball throw downs or footballers stretching.

2. Be Quick Off the Blocks, Do Not Get Stuck Anywhere In The First Ten Questions
Given the baggage of engineering exams that we carry we tend to start slow — the I-will-do-every-question-properly-attitude — and finish in a hurry.

We do this because we are greedy to get marks under our belt, but if you have time under your belt you will have more marks at the end of the test. I would rather have gone through 10 questions in 5 minutes and not attempting anything rather than spending 20 minutes, to get 3 right and 2 wrong.

Tell yourself that you are going to choose your questions decisively. Be quick off the blocks and do not get stuck anywhere in the first ten questions.

3. No Question Is Worth More Than 4 Minutes
Do not throw good money after bad money. Do not restart solving a questions after you have already spent 4 minutes on it. You might think you can get 3 marks if you spend another 3 minutes but there are always plenty more fish in the sea, especially easier fish. Remember all those SimCAT questions you discovered you could easily solve only after you went home. No question, not even ones from your favourite areas, are worth it.

4. Strategically Leave 30-35 Questions
It is always better to leave a question/set than to play and miss. From our previous post on scores and percentiles you will see that you can leave more than 30-35 questions and still get a 99 percentile. You should not spend more than 15 minutes in leaving these questions. This will leave you with enough time to correctly solve the questions you select.

5. Time-Limits Are Sacrosanct, Do Not Exceed Them
The most precious thing on an aptitude test is time. So if you have set some basic time-limits for yourself then you should stick to them. Even an extra 5 minutes here and there can jeopardise your sectional cut-offs and hamper your chances of getting a call.

IIMs take sectional cut-offs very seriously, right down to the decimal. Remember it is a computer that will generate the list of candidates to be  sent a first call based on the input parameters and not people sitting and evaluating your application qualitatively. So a 79.9 instead of 80 on a section will mean that you will not get a first call.

So if you feel you need to give 10 minutes more to a section, do that later not immediately. We had discussed a timing strategy here.

6. Skip questions within a set in DI and LR
Within a particular DI or LR set (more DI than LR), there will be one question which might end-up being time-consuming. This can be the first one or the second one. So first estimate the number of steps involved in solving a question or the precision of calculation required (close options), if both are high then quickly move on to the next question. In many cases it does turn out that solving two questions of a set in 4 minutes is a much better option than getting stuck for 10-15 minutes with 3-4 questions.

7. Do Not Let Your Favourite Area Jeopardise Your Test
Very often test-takers go in to the test thinking that they have to score heavily from a particular area be it LR or Quant. Sure you have to, but only if the questions permit you to!
For example, I would rather do two/three solvable LR Sets in 15-20 minutes and leave the seemingly tougher ones after trying for 3-5 minutes rather than spend 35-40 mins trying to solve all the LRs. Always exit when your prescribed time-limit for an area is done.

You should also be prepared for your favourite area to be less rewarding than usual. When I solved SimCAT 12, I spent very little time solving LR, despite LR being my strong suit because I realised they would sink my time. How do you realize this? By taking your blinkers off! If after 5 minutes you have got no hang of a set unlike on easy sets, then that is your biggest signal!

VA and RC might not be your strength but there might be easy questions lurking there, finish them first and then come back later to try your hand at the tougher LRs.

8. Remember, unfamiliar does not mean unsolvable!
How many times have you left a DI Set just because it is unfamiliar looking only to discover later that it was actually quite simple? I am sure quite often.

We are wired to be wary of the unfamiliar, it helps us survive. But on aptitude tests this can be your undoing. Very often DI Sets where the representation is not a regular one or LR sets that do not seem to be the standard arrangement types might not be difficult to solve once you invest 3-4 minutes trying to understand what they mean.

In fact the converse is also true, familiar looking sets can lull you into investing time to solve them, only to realise much later that they should have been left alone. The LR Sets in SimCAT 12 are a case in point , the tough sets were very standards arrangement type of sets.

9. Do Not Carry Baggage From The Previous Section, Think About The Question In Front Of You 
Your ability to crack a question depends on your level of engagement with the question. It happens quite often that based on the number of questions they are able to attempt in a section, test-takers’ performance on the second section is affected. Test-takers go in to the test having a fixed number in mind and if the do not hit that number on that section, they attempt the second section with nervousness, lower confidence and concentration levels. Please remember that on test-day your ability will not drastically fall or rise. So if you were able to attempt fewer it just means that the section was tougher as a whole. Do not carry baggage from one question into another section!

Also, often when you are doing questions from areas that you are not really fond of, you are thinking about questions from areas your are fond of. Does this really help? Think only about the question in front of you.

10. Take Only Your Brains To The Test, Leave Your Feelings Outside The Lab Along With Your Other Belongings
Most things are won or lost as much by aptitude as by attitude. When Roger Federer plays Nadal you know that somewhere (despite Nadal relentlessly pounding heaving topspin forehands to demolish Federer’s single-handed backhand) Federer lacks the belief that he can beat Nadal. When Djokovic beat Nadal in a final last year, after losing a few matches to him previously, the newspapers said that he displayed a monk-like focus. Both of these examples indicate that half the battle is won or lost in the mind.

Your performance on aptitude tests is dependent on how well your brain processes the information in front of you. So if you let all the myriad things around the test — if I do not get it this time I can’t imagine myself continuing in this job, if I do not get it this time my parents will get me married off and so on and so forth — affect your ability to process the information in the question and execute your timing strategies, it will result in you not performing to the best of your abilities.

I know this might seem to be easier said that done but people truly have bigger problems — not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, not having money to pay their child’s fees, being there with a loved one fighting cancer and worse — none of your problems are really bigger than these.

So do not let your emotions get the better of your abilities. Take only your mind to the test, leave your feelings along with your other belongings outside the lab.

And the most important thing that that cannot be part of a numbered list: DO NOT GIVE UP AT ANY STAGE OF THE TEST. 

This is perhaps the most important thing that will be demanded of you. Fight till the very end, despite the fact that your favourite area did not go well, despite the fact that you find the paper tough, because every mark counts. This will ensure that even if you do not make it to your dream college you might make it to a college that you have applied to and will give you the career break you are looking for. Giving up at some stage of the test can cost you an entire year!

That was may be one of the longest posts I have written but I know that if you can do these 10 things and do not give up, you will have performed to the best of your abilities.

So here is wishing all the readers of this blog all the very best for your CAT! Go forth and maximize your score!


How To Set A Target Score For CAT 2014

The CAT is a week away and one question we keep getting asked is what score should I target. While percentiles are all that matter, the question is not entirely invalid in terms of its relevance to setting score-based milestones to evaluate your performance during the 170 minutes come test-day. The best way to go about it though is by looking at what the numbers from this year’s SimCATs tell us. We will be looking at data from SimCAT 8 onwards from when the new pattern fully took effect.

What is the SCORE RANGE that a 99 percentile can take?

Crossing the 99the percentile overall is a pre-requisite for general category students aiming for a call from the old IIMs. So what is the range of scores translated into a 99th percentile on SimCATs 8 to 13?

A range of close to 74 marks! Even if we discount SimCAT 8 since the pattern had just changed and test-takers were yet to find their feet, the range is still 50 marks. On SimCAT 12,which was the toughest of the lot, it was was low as 127. The average score for a 99 it turns out is a 150.

Lets us look at the range at other percentile levels (excluding SimCAT 8).

Percentile Score Range Average
99 127-177 150
97 115-163 136
95 105-150 126
90 91-133 112
85 83-120 102
80 77-108 93

Sectional Scores and Percentiles

What do things look like at a sectional level at the various percentile ranges.

Percentile QA – DI

Score Range




Score Range



99 78-111 90 62-86 75
95 63-90 74 53-73 63
90 55-77 64 45-64 55
85 49-68 58 40-58 49
80 44-61 52 32-54 45

How Do You Set Targets For Yourself?

As you can see the score required for a particular percentile depends on the paper you get. One of the benchmarks you can use is the average scores at various percentiles as per the
data above. From the scores you can calculate the number of attempts you would need to achieve your desired percentile.

How Not To Use Target Scores

While the average for a 99 in QA-DI is a score of 90, it does not mean that on test-day, if at the end of your QA-DI section you you estimate your score to be less than 90, you panic.

Quite often test-takers go in with a number in mind and when it does not happen they panic and they end up either allotting additional time to the section thereby jeopardising the other section or go into the other section with a negative mindset and perform poorly. Once the results are out that they realize that they had in fact performed well on the section they attempted first and a good performance on the second one would have meant a 99 plus percentile instead of a 98. More importantly they might miss out on a potential FMS convert and we don’t need to tell you how much that would cost!

So use the data above only as a reference, like the average score on a particular pitch. It does not mean that if you reach the average score in the 45th over you are going to take singles in the last five overs! Nor does it mean that you give up trying to save every single and bowl yourself to victory if you end up with a score slightly less than the average score.

I know it is the last week and most of you might be neck deep in prep but go watch Interstellar some time before your test-day, just to take the weight off your shoulders and shoot off into space.

All the best!

Data Interpretation – Strategy

When attempting a test like the CAT, a fair number of people follow the (mindless) strategy of “attempt question 1, move to question 2 only after that is done, then question 3…” and so on, often failing thereby to see all the questions. One should remember that one need not win every single battle to win the war. Given that most people (even most people who will eventually make it!) will not attempt all the 100 questions, your “shot selection” becomes very crucial. You need to recognise – as Rahul Dravid used to so elegantly – which balls to hit and which ones are best left alone, and the faster you can judge this the better.

This becomes all the more crucial in the “set-based” questions (DI, LR and RC) as it generally takes significantly longer to judge these. A typical singleton question (such as a parajumble or remainder or PnC or vocab-based one) can be weighed in 20-30 seconds, and judiciously left without feeling too bad about it. But a set can take up to 3-4 minutes just to understand in detail; and if after spending so much time you realise that you have not been able to decipher it, it can induce a panic.

In the past 5 years, there were 30 questions in each section and there would be around 9-10 questions each (or 3 sets each) of DI or LR. This year, it is likely that there would be 4-5 sets, and as many as 15-18 questions, of each. This means that, as in days of yore, your choice of which sets to attempt first could become crucial. In this post, then, I will try to look at possible mechanisms and criteria to help in the decision-making process (as always, this is indicative and you will have to adapt it to your own areas of strength and weakness) so that you can pick and choose which sets to attack first without actually getting into the nitty-gritty details.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

1) Is the given data in a familiar form or in an unfamiliar or haphazard state? And is it precise or ambiguous?

If the data provided is in a standard table / line graph / pie chart and is complete and precise, then even if there is quite a lot of data it should still be very manageable. However, if

  • the data is provided in an unfamiliar form – a histogram, a scatter-chart, a cumulative table, or some even more esoteric format (which means you would require an inordinate amount of time just to understand how to interpret it properly)
  • there is some data missing (which means solving the question might entail a lot of pre-work)
  • the data is not precisely readable, such as a bar- or line-graph where the values can only be approximately estimated to around 5-10% accuracy (which means that even with your best efforts accuracy cannot be guaranteed)
  • the data is presented as a caselet (which means you might have to spend precious time at the start to bring it into a manageable form)

then it might be worth leaving the set for later.

2) Is there additional data provided in the questions?

I’ve observed that a lot of people base their judgement of the difficulty level of a set solely on the pre-information before the questions. In my opinion, though, the questions are almost always worth a dekko; if they are straightforward queries like “Who is sitting next to Mr Sivaramasubramanian?” or “In which year is the profit of Megahard Corporation the maximum?” or “How many people failed in maths?” and the options are not of the “Cannot be determined” flavour then it is a pretty fair indicator that the set is going to give you definite answers in one go.

But if you see questions such as “If Germany defeats Brazil 7 – 0 in the final round*, then who will end up in 3rd place overall?” or “if in 2014, Froogle reports a 10% growth in sales and an 8% growth in costs over 2013, then what will be their percentage profit in 2014?” or even more flagrantly evil question-types like “Which of the following cannot be true” giving three statements and options like “I and II only”, “All of I, II and II” and so on (which effectively means you have to solve 3-4 questions for the price of one), then I would recommend you skip lightly on to the next set and return later.

* This example is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any real-life match is purely coincidental. 

3) Does the set lean more towards the calculative or the reasoning based?

This can be a powerful decision point, depending on your skill-sets. A set which involves intensive calculation is unlikely to go out of its way to confound you with traps, while one which involves simple numbers will often require careful reading and weighing of alternatives. (Personally, calculation is something of a strength for me and hence I choose to do the calculative sets relatively early on, but as I said earlier, this decision has to be based upon your knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses.)

4) How far apart are the answer choices?

This is a useful question to ask yourself when deciding between two calculative sets. If the answers are far apart – on a percentage rather than absolute basis, mind you! – then you can approximately fairly wildly and still arrive at a correct answer confidently. (For example (3, 7, 12, 18) or (35.7%, 52.8%, 88%, 122%)) However if the answers are close together, then you calculations must needs be carried out with nit-picking accuracy and this will affect your speed as well. (For example (62375, 62525, 62845, 63635) or (35.7%, 36.8%, 38.7%, 39.9%))

5) How many questions are there in each set?

If the sets are similar on the above parameters, then this could be a tie-breaker – a set with 4 questions will give you more value for money (i.e. more marks as a result of the time spent on it) than a similar set with 3 questions.

Try and apply the above criteria to a set in real-time, under test conditions. An excellent case-study would be the DI-LR section from CAT 2008, which had 7 sets covering a wide range of types and difficulty levels. If possible, in a future post I shall try to do a video analysis of the same and roughly demonstrate how one could have approached the section during the test.



CATalysis – 1

A lot of people keep asking me “How should I analyse a SimCAT?” so I felt I should do a post on that.

My observation is that most people write a test, then quickly check the answers/solutions to the ones they got wrong, and move on. They then wonder why the score doesn’t magically improve over time – after all, they are working so hard and taking so many tests! The thing is, taking a lot of tests, by itself, is not enough – one needs to identify areas of improvement and consciously work on them. So how does one proceed to do this?

The first step is the easiest (and consequently everyone does it mindlessly) – take the test, within the prescribed time limits. See the score if you like (but don’t check the correct answers just yet!)

Then, after a short rest break, attempt the test again without time limits. This will tell you which questions you were genuinely clueless about and which ones you lost out on solely because of the time constraints (in other words, it will help you identify the bottleneck in your preparation – conceptual clarity or speed). It will inform the first phase of your analysis below. After this exercise, go to the answer and explanations. And do the following 3 phases of analysis (in any order):

Phase 1: The ones you left (within the timed test)

The results obtained by taking the test a second time without time limits would guide you in this analysis. Identify which questions turned out to be easy, but which you ended up leaving for some reason or another. The two main reasons a question would go unsolved are

(a) You never got round to seeing it: in this case, the blame is squarely on your shoulders. Leaving questions unseen is extremely bad practice. Make sure that, during the 170 minutes available, you have managed to at least read every question and consciously decided whether or not to attempt it on its merits.

Understand that the broad, superficial topic should not be the only criterion for attempting or leaving a question. Don’t leave a question just because “it is from Probability” or “I hate Parajumbles” – you should be capable of attempting a simple question in any and every sub-field within the syllabus. Conversely, don’t attempt a question beyond your skills just because of some flawed logic like “I must do all TSD questions in every paper” or “I will attempt all the LR or die trying”. In analyses, I often found that people skipped questions from an area of discomfort in 3-4 seconds (even with a phenomenal reading/comprehension speed, there is no way they would have read, understood and decided rationally about it in that span of time!), while in other cases the same people spent 6-8 minutes or more struggling with an intractable poser, just because it was from a topic they considered themselves experts at.

(b) You found it incomprehensible or just downright scary: in this case, your analysis needs to identify whether it actually was a tough problem or just masquerading as one. In a 100 question test, chances are that there will be a few questions which are really gruelling; the only intent of these is to test whether you have the presence-of-mind to leave them and move on. But these will be few in number. A larger bunch of questions will look extremely difficult without being nearly as bad as they appear; exams like CAT, XAT and IIFT specialise in these. Identifying these might make a key difference in your scoring patterns and provide a 10-15 mark boost.

Phase 2: The ones you got wrong

Find out, among those, how many of them you goofed up because of silly mistakes, how many were because of misreading the question (as in you failed to understand the English of the question, what it was asking you to find) and how many were because your concepts were unclear (you understood what needed to be found but were unable to hit upon the right logic/formula/concept).

(a) There were lots of silly mistakes: work on focus, on avoiding those lapses of concentration (in one way it is a good thing – it means you can achieve significant score improvement in a short time as your concepts are sound). Examples of this would be taking the diameter of a circle as the radius, forgetting the factor of ½ in the area of a triangle, taking the sum of n natural numbers as n(n-1)/2 instead of n(n+1)/2, writing 3 x 3 = 6, etc.

(b) Understanding was the issue: learn how to identify the language cues in the question, so that in future you would be better equipped to notice the subtle traps and shades of meaning inherent in a well-set question. For example, if the question uses the phrase “non-negative integer solutions” then it should ring a warning bell in your mind; why hasn’t the examiner used the simpler “positive integer solutions”? And immediately the answer should strike you – you need to watch out for the zero as well.

(c) Conceptual clarity was a problem: revisit the relevant topic in your Basic Reference Materials and textbooks and internalise the concept thoroughly so that in future you will be able to apply it properly. For example, if you lost 3 easy marks because you forgot the volume of a sphere or the concept of a dangling modifier or the number of ways to put identical objects into distinct groups, you should chastise yourself mentally and ensure that in future you know everything you need to.

Phase 3: The ones you got right

This is the part of the analysis most people ignore, even the serious ones. I mean, it is right, right? Why bother analysing it? seems to be the thought here. However, there are crucial lessons to be learned here as well. After all, these are the question types you are surely going to attempt on the D-day as well, so it behooves you to be as efficient as possible in them.

(a) Questions you got right by a fluke: ensure that, in the future, you will know the correct logic for these. You don’t want to rely on luck in the real thing, do you?

(b) Questions you got right by a valid logic: it is always great to get 3 marks, no doubt, but if you spent 7-8 minutes on them then that takes off some of the sheen; the price is a little too high. Try to seek a better, more efficient way to do them, reduce the effort and time spent. And what of those which took only 2 minutes? Even there, see if you can reduce it to 1.5 minutes? 1 minute? 40 seconds? Because that will give you more time to spend on the other, tougher questions. Start with the assumption “However good I am at this, I can always get better”, let that be a cantrip guiding your preparation.

In my next “strategy” post I will try to look at a broader analysis; how to find your strengths and weaknesses and use them to optimise the order of attempting questions.



How Should I Allocate My Time On CAT 2014

This is a big question and so this post will be a bit long. So settle in for a long read.

The biggest change in the new CAT 2014 pattern, as everyone would agree, has been the removal of sectional time-limits. The thing about this change is that for some test-takers it is the best thing that could have happened and for others, especially those who were ‘set’ and have taken the CAT in its previous avatar, it is the worst kind of change. There will be the fence-sitters of course, those who are yet to see if it is a good thing or a bad, well the sooner they embrace the change the better.

In an earlier post we had mentioned that this change will change the skew the test from being a test of competence — the number of QA-DI or VA-LR can you solve in 70 minutes — to a test of strategy — the way you manage 170 minutes, your strengths & your weakness in such a way that you clear both sectional and overall cut-offs.

From our experience, most test-takers have the mental ability to be able to ace the Quant or Verbal questions in isolation but what lets them down is their ability manage time and clear the sectional cut-offs. In a sense through the CAT you have to prove that you have the potential to be manager and not just a worker (problem-solver) before your do your MBA.

What You Need To Manage — Not Just Time But Also Unpredictability

The CAT has been a notoriously unpredictable as a test. Since its inception only two years have passed where it did not spring a surprise on unsuspecting test-takers. So given that they have given the format a major overhaul this year test-takers will do well if they go in prepared for at least a few novelties.

The surprises can primarily come in two forms —

  • Changes in question types: no more parajumbles, return of FIJs or data sufficiency, fill in 3 blanks
  • Changes in the number of questions from each type: more LR or RC than usual.

Another part of the unpredictability is that we cannot predict how the difficulty-level of each area is going to be on test-day —

  • Quant can be much easier than usual (which is a sign that cut-off will be higher and not a reason to rejoice)
  • Logical Reasoning can turn out be tougher than usual and you might be required turn to Verbal to clear the VA-LR cut-off.

You should allocate your time in such a way that you have the flexibility to deal with any unpredictability and not let it jeopardise your ability to clear the sectional cut-offs.

Small Is Efficient

We always do well when we have limited resources because we then maximise every penny. And on the CAT, the most important resource is time. So does it make sense to divide it into two big block of 85 minutes each? Absolutely not! It is like having just one pit stop during an entire race.

Dividing it into smaller units based on the proportion of questions you will see from each area is your best bet to manage your time in the most efficient manner. So the idea is to break down this large mass of 170 minutes into small units with specific targets to achieve.

Five Areas Instead Of Two Sections

So the first thing to do will be to move away from the dichotomy of Quant & Verbal and look at the test as comprising five areas : QA, DI, VA, RC & LR . Why five areas? Since doing well on all five is a must to ace the test.

Area # Questions # Attempts
QA 30-35 18 – 20
DI 15-20 12 – 15
VA 15-20 12 – 15
RC 15-20 12 – 15
LR 15-20 12 -15

DI, RC & LR will comprise at least 45-50 questions on the test. Can you afford to ignore any one of them. Also every area will have a certain number of difficult questions. The task is to pick out Easy & Medium questions from each area. The reason most people do not cross a particular threshold is because they choose a favourite area and try to attempt even the tougher sets which are better left alone. One LR Set might be better left alone under test conditions, a few Quant problems are better ignored altogether. Focussing on five areas will ensure that your attempts are higher as well as better chosen.

How To Divide Your 170 Minutes

Area Time Attempts Accuracy
QA 45 minutes 14 – 18 12 – 15
DI 25 minutes 12 – 15 8 – 10
VA 20 minutes 12 – 15 12 – 14
RC 25 minutes 12 – 15 8 – 10
LR 25 minutes 12 -15 8 – 10
Buffer 30 minutes 8 – 10 6 – 8

What does such a division ensure?

Ensures That You Clear Sectional Cut-Offs: The table below shows that the minimum sectional cut-off is 80 and the maximum is 90.

Ahmedabad 85 85 90
Bangalore 80 90 90
Calcutta 85 85 90
Lucknow 85 85 90
Indore 85 85 90
Kozhikode 80 80 90

The time division and attempt-accuracy defined in the previous table will ensure that you will get around a 90 percentile in QA-DI and way above it in VA-LR at the end of 140 minutes. You can use your buffer time at the end to not only clear the sectional cut-off but the overall cut-off but maximise your overall score as well.

Ensures That You Do Not Miss Out On Easy Questions: How many times have you gone back home and analysed a SimCAT only to find that there was an easy set or question that you could have done but did not since you did not really read it. This division ensures that you take a look at all areas and pick out easy questions from them.

Ensures That You Can Gauge the Difficulty Level of Each Area: If you consistently use this strategy in all your SimCATs, come test-day you will be able to gauge the difficulty level of the section-based on the number of attempts at the end of the defined time-limit. This will enable you to define what you need to achieve in the next time-slot. For example, if you attempt fewer than usual in Quant at the end of 45 minutes, then you will know that you need to amp up your performance in the DI time-slot. If you have a really good day on the Quant then may be instead of tackling DI next you can do VA and RC and then come back to DI later.

Ensures Timely & Better Performance Tracking: It is quite common for test-takers to realise towards the end of a test that their performance was below par. This is not because they performed poorly towards the end of the test but because they did not keep track of the deficits that were building up during the course of the test. By measuring yourself over smaller time slots with specific targets, you will be able to clearly know how your test is progressing and formulate your strategy in stages depending on your performance in the previous time-slot.

Why The Buffer

Anything can happen on test-day, for some reason an LR Set you might have otherwise done might pose a stubborn problem. Quant might throw up more questions that usual from your least favourite area, Geometry or P & C. How do you deal with this? Can you allow these minor setbacks to jeopardise your entire test?

The buffer is to help you deal with test-day uncertainty. It is that safety net at the end of 140 minutes that helps you ensure that you deliver to you clear sectional and overall cut-offs despite any setbacks during the 140 minutes.

The division suggested above has shown great results for a few students. One student saw his score shoot up from 134 to 166 (SimCAT 8 to 9) after he implemented this strategy. He felt that it really pushed him to achieve more on each area than usual. But he also added that what really helped was that he kept the time-limits sacrosanct.

You can customise the plan by changing the time-limits here and there by 5-10 minutes but you should not let your buffer time go below 20 minutes. More importantly you should stick to the plan.

We will be coming up with a follow up post on the various things that can go wrong in the 170 minutes and the strategic blunders you should watch out for.

Until then embrace the change and keep an eye on the timer!

CAT 14 Strat – Should I give equal time to each section?

In the old days, when there were no sectional cut-offs in many exams, some people would choose to be “specialists”. In other words, they would strive to be really really good at one section and devote most of the time in the paper to that section, thus clearing the overall cut-offs despite a negligible score in one section.

However, colleges quickly realised that by such a criterion they ran the risk of getting people who spoke impeccable English but could not do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to save their lives (or their jobs), or others who could be human computers yet could not string together two consecutive grammatical sentences. Either type would go on to be less-than-ideal manager material. So nearly all the top colleges have moved to a scenario where there are sectional cut-offs; thus ensuring that one needs to spend a significant amount of time on each section.

Having said that, one can still choose to be flexible about time allotment. Very few people are equally proficient in both sections; and it is an established fact that the overall cut-off exceeds the total of the individual or sectional cut-offs (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, after all!). So it is generally necessary not only to clear the cut-offs in each section but also to totally ace one section. You need to create a strategy which plays to your strengths; one of the most important things benefits of the SimCATs is that they allow you to experiment with different strategies and work out what suit your style.

For example, let us assume that practice tells you that your stamina is average, but your preparation is solid enough that you are tolerably confident of clearing both sectional cut-offs. You could start with your weaker section, planning on giving it a little less than half the time (say 70 minutes) and then taking stock after that time. If you are confident that any reasonable cut-off would be crossed, then you could shift to the other section and give it your best for the remaining time, thus ensuring that your overall score will be maximised. If you are not confident, give the first section a little more time to be safe!

Another strategy which a lot of people found handy in the old paper-based days could also be adapted to suit here. Initially, give maybe 70 minutes to each section. If at the end of that you feel sure that you have done well in both sections (and confident of clearing realistic cut-offs), then devote the remaining 30 minutes to your strongest section and aim to maximise your total score. If, on the other hand, you feel that you haven’t done justice to either one of the sections, then go to that section and ensure that you clear its cut-off. An advantage of this strategy is that it doesn’t require you to modify your existing strategy much, as you are already used to giving 70 minutes per section initially.

Note: all the above assumes that the test-taker has adequate ability and preparation in each of the sections! Without that, all the strategy in the world will avail nothing.

In the next couple of posts, my friend T will delve deeper into time-allocation at a micro level, rather than the broad generalisations I have made here.



CAT 14 Strat – Series or Parallel?

An important question to ponder is “should I attempt one section completely and then move to the other? Or should I switch between sections?” To decide this, once again, let’s do an experiment: first take 2 section tests each in QA and VA. Do two QA first and then 2 VA. Then take another set of 2 section tests each and do 1 QA, 1VA, 1QA, 1VA.

 If the score in the latter experiment is significantly lower than in the former, then you probably have a “switching problem” as in your mind takes time to get into top gear when you switch from QA to VA and vice versa. If the two performances are comparable, then your mind is probably adept at shifting from one section to another without requiring a warm-up time.

Another way to recognise this is if you find you do better within a section when you do all question of a given type one after the other; say all RCs or all VA or all LR – your analysis when writing Sim tests should help you to recognise this kind of pattern if it exists.

 If you do have a switching problem, do ensure that you do not make frequent shifts just because the option is provided. Decide on which section to do first (as discussed above) and allot a certain minimum amount of time to be given to that section; once that time is done, move to the other section and stick with it. Towards the end, perhaps, you can return to the earlier section if you have budgeted some time for it, or if you feel absolutely confident that you would have cleared any reasonable cut-off in the second section.

 If, however, you find that switching is not a problem per se, then you can be fairly flexible in how you attack the paper. You might choose to, for example, do all the quick-shot singleton questions first, then do all the sets (DI, LR, RC) then if time permits attack the rest of the questions. Or you might choose to first attack certain pre-decided question types (say “vocabulary, parajumbles, arithmetic, logs, LR”) and leave the rest for later.

 Either way, another question which should arise is, how do I divide the time across sections? My next post will address that.